The Covid-19 pandemic and the homeless 

di Priscilla Pajdo del October 13, 2020

TORONTO - Usually, the Thanksgiving- day weekend is a time to gather with family and friends to indulge in a bounteous feast. For many, it is a time of reflection, to contemplate all the things for which we are grateful. For one, the food on your table and another, the roof over your head.

The latter, or lack thereof, pose a real challenge for some members of society. In some cases, there are individuals who do not have a place to call home.

According to the State of Homelessness in Canada 2016 report, it is estimated that approximately 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness in a year. Every night, an estimated 35,000 people are homeless across the nation.

Here in Toronto, an estimated 8,700 people experienced homelessness in 2018, according to Street Needs Assessment. That number is closer to 9,200 today.

There are a multitude of reasons why people become homeless, loss of employment, unable to afford rent, migration, mental/ physical illness, substance abuse or fleeing abusive situations. These are just a few factors that can lead to homelessness.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made a tough situation even more difficult for those who are vulnerable and homeless. For individuals turning to the crowded shelter system, finding space has become more of a challenge.

Prior to Covid-19, the shelter system in the City was already stressed. To abide by Covid-19 physical distancing protocols, shelter capacity was cut in half.

The City’s response to the crisis has been to create more spaces to accommodate individuals seeking emergency shelter. Currently, Toronto has 75 shelter and respite sites sheltering about 7,000 people every night. Some of the new temporary facilities and interim housing sites include 19 hotels which offer space to about 2,000 people.

According to the Covid-19 interim Shelter Recovery Strategy Report (September 2020), prepared for the City of Toronto (Shelter, Support & Housing Administration and United Way Greater Toronto) by BGM Strategy Group, the average cost to operate a single traditional shelter bed is $40,000 annually. This cost has nearly doubled to $80,000 during the pandemic. By comparison, the cost of operating a supportive housing unit is $24,000.

These new temporary shelter sites have not come without some contention from communities in the area. After the opening of some hotels, several unpleasant incidents involving residents have occurred, including an overdose death, stabbings and a fire.

Security issues have also been raised by neighbours in the areas around some hotel/shelters. There has been a noticeable increase in Incidents regarding break-ins and thefts. Also, an increase of drug activity and paraphernalia associated with use have local area residents calling on city officials and police to step up security and patrols in affected areas in order to improve safety.

Another part of the City’s strategy to address the homeless crisis is to introduce more supportive housing units. Through these efforts, the City aims to help more individuals experiencing homelessness secure permanent affordable housing.

With Covid-19 cases are on the rise, Toronto, Peel region and Ottawa have returned to a modified phase two, more people could face lay-offs and unemployment. This situation could put many in a position where they will not be able to pay rent thereby possibly adding to the homelessness population.

We live in a Northern climate, as the weather begins to get colder, there may be more people seeking shelter this coming winter. In Toronto, the winter response plan will provide more than 6,700 spaces through the City’s shelter system with an additional 560 new spaces.

The question always remains: is it enough and does it address root causes of the problem being targeted.

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